News for Nicholas Kristof: Organic Chicken Feed Isn’t What You Want It To Be

Check out Nicholas Kristof’s column today. He reports that chickens on industrial farms are fed all manner of unexpected chemicals, including arsenic. Why anyone would be surprised at this discovery is beyond me but, nonetheless, good for Kristof for keeping the heat on industrial agriculture. The real problem with his piece, though, is the absurd conclusion. He writes,

What does all this mean for consumers? The study looked only at feathers, not meat, so we don’t know exactly what chemicals reach the plate, or at what levels. The uncertainties are enormous, but I asked Nachman about the food he buys for his own family. “I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic,” he said. “We buy organic.”

I’m the same. I used to be skeptical of organic, but the more reporting I do on our food supply, the more I want my own family eating organic — just to be safe.

So, Kristof assumes that all is well with organic chicken feed. But is it? Here’s the nutrient profile of one of the higher end examples of organic chicken feed:


Countryside Natural Products

Organic Soy-Free Poultry Starter Feed


Organic Field Peas, Organic Wheat, Organic Corn, Fish Meal, Organic Oats, Organic Flaxseed, Organic Alfalfa Meal, Calcium Carbonate, Hydrated Sodium Calcium Aluminosilicate, Dried Organic Kelp, Dicalcium Phosphate, Salt, Sodium Selenite, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Choline, Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, d-Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Iron Polysaccharide Complex, Manganese Polysaccharide Complex, Zinc Polysaccharide Complex, Copper Polysaccharide Complex, Cobalt Polysaccharide Complex, Yeast Culture, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Bacillus Licheniformis, Bacillus Subtilis, Lactobacillus Lactis, Enterococcus Faecium, (Dried Aspergillis Oryzae Fermentation Extract)

Not only do many of these ingredients violate the Pollan-esque dictum not to eat anything that has an ingredient you can’t pronounce, but a quick search of the scientific literature reveals that many of these mystery ingredients are, at least in high doses, toxic. A quick sample:

Sodium Selenite

The Journal of American College of Nutrition reports not much was known about which selenium compounds to approve for use in animal feeds when the decisions were made back in the 1970’s. “At the time the regulatory action was taken, only the inorganic selenium salts (sodium selenite and sodium selenate) were available at a cost permitting their use in animal feed.” Science has since learned that these inorganic selenium sources (sodium selenite most commonly used in pet foods) can be toxic in high doses; effecting an animal’s blood, liver, and muscles. The organic selenium yeast on the other hand, has proven to be far less toxic, even in large doses. “A study with rats showed that high doses (1.5 and 3.0 mg/kg body weight) of organic selenium in Selenium Yeast did not have any toxic effects after 14 days. This level of selenium is much higher than the theoretical toxic level for inorganic selenium.”


Menadione Sodium Bisulfate

This ingredient can be highly toxic in high doses. Hazard information regarding menadione lists “carcinogenic effects” and states “the substance is toxic to kidneys, lungs, liver, mucous membranes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.” ( sodium bisulfite-9924604) More information on menadione sodium bisulfate and pets can be read at ( .


Pyridoxine Hydrochloride

An excess of pyridoxine is toxic and may result in damage to your nerves in your arms and legs called neuropathy. The excess usually comes from overconsumption of nutritional supplements that contain pyridoxine. The upper tolerable intake level for pyridoxine is 100 mg per day for adults. The risk for neuropathy increases as the supplement dosage or total daily intake of pyridoxine exceeds 100 mg per day. When dosage falls below 100 mg, the symptoms of neuropathy may be reversible. Research by Martijn Katan Ph.D. published in “Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde” in 2005 reports that intake of pyridoxine at doses of 1000 mg per day or more is toxic and causes neuropathy; this dosage is about 800 times the daily intake from foods. The research also reports cases of two patients with neurotoxicity from taking 24 mg and 40 mg of pyridoxine per day


Enterococcus Faecium

Although the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Enterococcus faecium is a leading source of nosocomial infections, it appears to lack many of the overt virulence factors produced by other bacterial pathogens, and the underlying mechanism of pathogenesis is not clear. Using E. faecium-mediated killing of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as an indicator of toxicity, we determined that E. faecium produces hydrogen peroxide at levels that cause cellular damage  . . . These results suggest that hydrogen peroxide produced by E. faecium has cytotoxic effects and highlight the utility of C. elegans pathogenicity models for identifying bacterial virulence factors.



“The uncertainties,” as Kristof writes, “are enormous.” But still . . .


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

3 Responses to News for Nicholas Kristof: Organic Chicken Feed Isn’t What You Want It To Be

  1. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    Thanks so much for this info. Do you mind if I use it in my powerpoint, “An Inconvenient Food,” which I’m presenting on Earth Day?

  2. Provoked says:

    I hope this isn’t too far off topic but I just have to mention this about the nay-sayers who constantly claim that vegans take a lot of supplements. Every time I see what’s fed to cows, chickens and pigs it’s the same. A series of mumble-jumble chemicals and a long list of vitamins – A, D, E and of all things… “B12” too!

    That just begs the question… A plant based diet is inferior because it must be “artificially” supplemented with B12 — But a flesh diet is fine because the animals were administered the supplement instead. Huh? Mind boggling isn’t it?

    And I hope Kristof assesses what a truly “free range” chicken might consume in the way of pesticides and insecticides – I don’t think the grass or soil in any land that has been occupied by humans would pass the “organic” test.

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